Clutching onto his stomach, the boy carried on. For the first time he had been left to roam through Osaka on his own and unprotected. Throat parched, he tried to not allow his legs to cave in with every strenuous step he'd take. Under different circumstances he would have enjoyed the freedom, but at that moment he felt like he was in a locked cage.
Tall buildings and skyscrapers blurred into each other and, before he knew it, he was lost in the bustling city. At noon he had stopped by a train station, but it had proven to be pointless when he had the faintest idea where he was going. Everything in his life had been sketched out for him, yet little did he know that that would no longer be the case.
Skipping school had always been a good thing. It had been his first time to do it. He'd be forgiven since it was his mother who had barged into his school and forced him out of his important English lesson. Heads had turned when his mother had made an appearance, but that was nothing new. Having attention was bound to happen when you were a part of the Ohkura family.
From the second his mother had stormed in, he had known something was not right – especially when she had pocketed a tracking device in his pants. Her breathing was fast, and between gasps she managed to say, "Keep this with you."
"What's happening?" He had asked her.
"Tadayoshi, please listen to me." Her hands lifted his head so that he was directly facing her, eyes intently staring at him. "Go home. Take a taxi. You mustn't call our driver either. When you get home, use the back entrance. Pack a suitcase of things that you think are important. Take only fifteen minutes only and run away. Don't go back. Got it? Go anywhere – possibly waste time in the city, just don't go back home. I'll find you, okay? I promise."
Before Tadayoshi had the chance to interrogate his mother further, she pulled him into a tight embrace. "I love you," she had lowly whispered, holding him close before dashing towards the opposite direction, leaving him bemused in front of his school's rusting gates.
Everything his mother had instructed, he had done it. The only problem was that she hadn't found him yet. He had been wandering the city for eight hours.
At that rate he had been going, Tadayoshi had bet his record of not eating. His stomach had grumbled so many times that he had lost count. He was starving. Out of all things he had forgotten to pack was his wallet and food. By the rate he was going, he'd probably starve to death.
Stranded, alone and he hadn't had the slightest idea what to do! All he wanted to do was crouch in a corner and cry his eyes out, but he knew he couldn't do that despite how exhausted he was.
With the sun setting, the city became darker. A sea of office employees flocked out of their work buildings. "Watch where you're going!" one of them had barked, before striding off. Tadayoshi held back a snide remark, quite possibly because he was too tired. It wasn't his fault that his suitcase was heavy. It wasn't his fault that he was stuck in such an idiotic situation.
Balling his fists, he went on. As he turned a corner, his eyes lit up and a weak smile surfaced on his face.
There, in front of him, was a takoyaki stand.
Tadayoshi walked towards the stand, drawn by the scent and his own salivating taste buds. A small crowd of customers surrounded it, waiting for their turn to place orders. One woman had finished being served and stood on the side, possibly waiting for another friend to order.
He watched her widely open her mouth, toothpick a ball, put it in between her lips and chew the takoyaki, savouring the taste. He almost snarled aloud when he saw a satisfied smile flash on her face as she began too toothpick another octopus ball.
"Are you hungry?"
Tadayoshi jumped, spinning behind him to find another boy, possibly his age, staring at him in curiosity. Tadayoshi rested a hand on his sternum in an attempt to calm down. After gaining back his composure, Tadayoshi spoke up, "Who are you?"
"Gum?" Tadayoshi repeated, raising an eyebrow. "You have a weird name."
The boy laughed. "It's my nickname."
Tadayoshi studied the boy called 'Gum' under his gaze. Gum had short chocolate-brown hair and was very lanky, standing a few centimeters taller than he was. What Tadayoshi noticed, the longer he stared at Gum, was the tiny prominent mole under Gum's pink lips and a hint of a dimple on his right cheek as he smiled at him.
No matter how much he observed Gum, Tadayoshi could not help but hold back disgust at what Gum was wearing.
Gum wore bright orange overalls that were a size too big for him. Tadayoshi knew this from how the legs of Gum's overalls were folded about three times. Under Gum's overalls, he wore a white grubby soiled shirt. If Gum's overalls had been a less flashy colour, Tadayoshi wouldn't be surprised if he had seen him as a cleaner mopping the floors to his family's mansion.
"...the others always made me scrape gum off the floor. Since everybody refused to do it, I was always stuck with that job. They make me do it on a daily basis."
Maybe Gum's job was a cleaner. Perhaps Tadayoshi had been right - but to think that someone his age was doing such a job was obscene! Someone like Gum was meant to be a student at school, studying to get into university and-
"What's your name?"
Tadayoshi didn't respond straight away. His parents had always warned him to never tell his name, especially if it was to a stranger. Then again, Gum had told him his nickname, which meant that he could lie about his name too.
"Johnny," Tadayoshi replied. "My name is Johnny." He hated telling lies because he was bad at it. His facial expressions always gave his lies away, therefore Tadayoshi had resorted to telling Gum a half-lie. Johnny was Tadayoshi's middle name.
"You have such an American name." Gum commented, but didn't question him further, something that Tadayoshi was thankful for. "Are you hungry? I don't think you noticed, but you're drooling a bit. I know this good place down town where you can get free food!"
"Free food?" That had immediately caught Tadayoshi's attention. His stomach was tempted. Free food meant that he wouldn't starve. Free food meant he'd be finally get to stop clutching his stomach.
Right then all logic had been thrown out of the window. What mattered was that Tadayoshi get food. After all, Gum was no longer a stranger. Gum had introduced himself and he seemed to be sincere. Then again, Tadayoshi may have not been thinking clearly since his hunger was talking.
"Where do I get this free food from?"
"My place." Gum took the suitcase from Tadayoshi's grasp and easily lifted it on one shoulder as if it were a feather. "I'll lead you to it. Follow me!"
And that was what 'Johnny' did.
. . . . . . . . .
The hairs on Johnny's arms were standing. The temperature hadn't dropped many degrees, yet goosebumps were apparent on his arms. It didn't help that he was still attired in his school's summer uniform. For the past half hour Johnny had been tracing after Gum's steps, zig-zagging and squeezing through narrow alleyways, to even crawling in a long air vent before stumbling into the room that they were in. Instead of feeling hunger, Johnny's stomach was tumbling with anxiety and waves of uneasiness. He was beginning to regret following Gum.
"Are we allowed here?" Johnny asked, dusting dirt off his charcoal-grey pants.
"Sure," Gum said. He opened his arms out wide and announced, "Welcome to my room!"
From one glance at the bleak room the only furniture that stood out were four sturdy bunk beds made of wood. Some beds were made, while others weren't. Johnny noticed that one of the lower bunks had sheets draping from it, almost touching the floor. There were even holes visible on the sheets. To think that they were using sheets that were already worn out! The mattress above the lower bunk was the only bed that had a light blue knitted blanket. On the bunk bed besides it, there was a small teddy bear on the bottom bunk, which at the head of the bed there was a skipping rope coiled around the wooden railing.
The room was approximately the same size as Johnny's bathroom. To think that eight people shared the same living space was absolutely pitiful! Why would Gum live in such a place and be proud of it? Perhaps he was lying and wasn't really live there, Johnny had thought. "If this is your room, why did we go through the air vent? Couldn't we have gone through the front entrance instead of sneaking in?"
Gum scratched the back of his head and chuckled. It was a nervous chuckle – nervous like he was trying to keep something from Johnny. Just as Gum opened his mouth to speak, a person ran into the room.
Johnny immediately knew which bed belonged to the person who had walked in. The task wasn't difficult when he saw that the person was wearing a hideous knit beanie, being the same light blue shade as the blanket he had seen. Why the boy had been wearing a beanie in Summer? - Johnny didn't know. The beanie wasn't the only strange thing that he was wearing. He wore a long faded red shirt that stopped above his ankles. Johnny was sure it was a shirt, but on the boy it looked like a dress considering his short height. Though Johnny knew nothing about the boy, he sure knew that he had a bizarre taste in fashion. Anybody could tell that.
"I need to hide!" the boy exclaimed. His cheeks were slightly pink and his chest was rising up and down. "Why won't he leave me alone?"
"Jacky! He's after me!"
Gum asked, "But do you know why he's looking for you? Jacky does most of the time have a reason..."
"He wants me to verse him at janken! Whoever loses has to responsible for cleaning the toilets." The boy called 'Toppo' groaned.
"It's one of the rules. Toppo, go play janken with him already!"
"Oh, Gum! You know how much I suck at janken! I always lose. It's not fair! The toilets haven't been cleaned for two weeks already. Imagine all the germs and the –wait. Hold on a second…Who are you?"
Toppo had only then realised that Johnny had been standing there the whole time.
Johnny felt uncomfortable as he watched Toppo circle him, gazing at him from head to toe as if he were a statue in an art gallery. Toppo even had the nerve to poke at Johnny's branded leather wristwatch and pinch the material of his uniform.
"He's rich." Toppo stated.
"His name is Johnny. He's my new friend." Gum introduced a bit too late. "Johnny, this is one of my brothers - Toppo."
Although Gum said they were brothers, Toppo and Gum looked nothing alike. There was no feature that was similar between the two asides from the fact that both shades of their hair were almost the same colour. Gum caught Johnny staring back and forth between him and Toppo and shook his head.
"No. We're not blood related, but I do consider him my brother." Gum said. "All the people here in this orphanage are my siblings."
"Orphanage?" Johnny repeated in aghast. "You're orphans?"
Johnny's mother had read him a translated Japanese version of Oliver Twist when he was younger. That was where he had heard the word 'orphanage'. In reality, he had never believed that orphans or orphanages had actually existed. How could a filthy place for unwanted and poor children be real?
"Is there anything wrong with that?" Toppo arched an eyebrow, not impressed by Johnny's reaction.
"I didn't mean that- I meant that..." Johnny cleared his throat. "It's just that-"
The three boys could hear it gradually becoming louder.
In an instant, Toppo raced towards the window and hid behind the dusty murky-green velvet curtains. It was fairly obvious where Toppo was hiding since his bare feet stuck out from under the curtains. Hiding under the bunk beds had been another option, but other than that there had been no proper spots to hide considering the room was too small to hide anyone or anything.
"Toppo!" scolded a loud, burly voice.
Johnny guessed that the person who had entered the room was Jacky - the boy who Toppo claimed was after him.
He was older than them. Johnny estimated that Jacky was also older him since Jacky's voice was deep and husky. From the way Jacky stood there, Johnny sensed an aura of maturity. Jacky's dark brown eyes were fixed on the curtains, striding towards them. It was evident that Jacky wasn't a person to mess with. Jacky meant business.
"If you don't get out of there, I'll tell Takeshi that you experimented with his tequila bottle!"
Jacky's words did the trick because as soon as he had spoken the threat, Toppo sheepishly withdrew from behind the curtains. Jacky instantly took action, marching towards the short boy and grabbing him by the back of his shirt, giving him a rowdy push out of the bedroom. In the process, Jacky looked at Johnny in disapproval.
"Gum, he doesn't belong here. Get him out."
And with that, Toppo and Jacky were gone.
It became more apparent that Johnny wasn't wanted there. Although Gum was considerate and nice to take him along to his house for food, from meeting both Toppo and Jacky he knew that he didn't belong there. Anyway, it was not like he was an orphan to begin with.
Johnny sighed. "Gum, I think you should take me back."
"No, I'm not lying! There really is food here. You should stay. I promised you, didn't I?"
As Johnny was about to reply, Gum walked out of the room. Johnny glanced at his suitcase, gave a shrug and then sprinted after Gum.
Gum smiled when he saw Johnny. He had been waiting besides the staircase and Johnny could feel a sense of relief when he saw that he hadn't left the orphanage. After going down couple of flights of stairs, Gum ushered Johnny into what looked like a lounge room.
The scent of liquor was strong. It wasn't that Johnny had ever tasted alcohol before, it was because he had always witnessed and smelled the expensive wine that his father would present whenever they'd host house parties. Johnny's sense of smell hadn't misled him, for he saw a bar at the far end of the room and behind the counter were multiple glasses of liquor.
Johnny shook his head, stepping back. He wasn't allowed there. Many times his parents had warned him to never go to clubs, especially when he was underage. They said it would ruin the Ohkura family's reputation.
Gum had to be lying. What was all this alcohol doing at an orphanage? it didn't make sense at all.
"Take a seat."
"I can't. I'm not of age yet."
"We're not drinking, I'm just getting you food," Gum said, walking around the counter and into the bar. "Take a seat in between Arsenal and Ai-chan."
There was only one stool available near the bar. The two seats on other side of the available one were occupied by two children. Gulping, he took a seat between them.
"This is my new friend, Johnny! I thought I'd give him some food because he looked hungry."
Arsenal didn't utter a word, ignoring Gum and Johnny. He leaned forward, focusing on something in his hands. From Johnny was sitting, he couldn't make eye contact with Arsenal because his shoulder-length black hair fell over his eyes. Johnny could see that Arsenal was polishing a gun with a dirty rag. Johnny scoffed. There was no way that the boy was holding a real gun. Johnny assumed it was a fake, possibly a toy gun. He didn't understand why Arsenal had to be so obnoxious. Toppo and Jacky had at least somewhat acknowledged him, but Arsenal was avoiding him completely.
That was then that Johnny's eyes went to linger at the girl. His heart almost skipped when he saw that she had been staring at him. She giggled and flashed a gentle smile at him. Like Gum, she was friendly unlike the other orphans that he had met that day. Johnny guessed that she was the youngest because she was even shorter than Toppo and looked calm and innocent compared to the other boys. Ai looked approachable.
While Arsenal was focused on cleaning his guns, Ai had flowers scattered and overflowing out of a straw basket. The flowers weren't of one kind, but of many. Roses, carnations and even sunflowers. The only trick about the flowers was that they looked like they were chopped off, some were still buds that hadn't blossomed and others didn't have a full stem. Johnny didn't know what she was doing, but as she fiddled with the stems with her fingers he grew curious.
"Where did you get those flowers from?" He asked.
Ai tilted her head, tucking her long wavy black hair behind her ear so that she could see Johnny properly. "The florist. Florist-san drops by flowers here every night. The flowers that no one wants."
"If no one wants them, why do you keep them?" Johnny was confused.
"Why get rid of something pretty?" she asked back, in a soft lilting tone.
From what Johnny had gathered, Ai did have a point.
"Arsenal?" Gum called. "Do you know where Ran's food is? You know - the meal that she cooked for us last night? The leftovers?"
Leftovers? The food that Gum was proud of, the meal that Gum was going to serve Johnny with had been leftovers? Johnny might have as well eaten from the bins!
"You're going to feed him?" Arsenal said, incredulously. "We'll be bankrupt if you always do this. Obachan and Takeshi have already warned you to stop buying milk for those stray cats. You need a new hobby!"
Johnny couldn't believe how rude Arsenal was. He had spoke about Johnny while he had been right next to him - and to think that Arsenal was speaking about him as if he were a stray cat!
Gum frowned. He had stopped searching for the food and complained. "You're being mean, Arsenal."
"And you're not being honest. Everyone's here. Why do you need to bring anybody else here?" Arsenal snapped, sliding off the stool and rushing away from them.
Gum chuckled. "Don't take Arsenal serious. He's just shy." Although Gum had spoken to Johnny, he was dodging behind the counter.
"Is that the reason why?" Johnny asked. "You just want me here to keep you company? Is that all?"
All that time Johnny had been doubting Gum's reason why he had brought him to the orphanage, but the answer had been simple. Gum only wanted to have someone to talk to.
"Yes." Gum admitted. He stood up from behind the counter and Johnny could see that he was blushing. "When you hang out with the same people all the time, wouldn't you get sick of it?"
"You could have said that from the beginning." Johnny laughed and in no time Gum was laughing along with him.
Johnny felt something poke him on the shoulder. He turned to the direction where had felt the come from and saw a stem. Ai stared at him and gave a cheeky grin. "Johnny, you have a high-pitched laugh."
That caused Gum to guffaw louder. Johnny didn't know whether it was an insult or not. Nevertheless, coming from Ai, Johnny was more amused. Usually he was shy around girls, but Ai was...he didn't know. There was something about her that Johnny couldn't put his finger on.
"Ai-chan, do you know where your brother or Mac are at? I want to know if they know if they ate the leftovers."
"They're..." Ai didn't finish her sentence. She got off her seat and ambled off. Gum jumped over the counter and tagged behind her, beckoning Johnny to go with him.
After a few turns, Johnny almost slipped. He looked down and saw a slice of watermelon on the floor. He steadied himself, glad he didn't fall and followed Gum and Ai's gaze.
They were scrutinising a game of darts between two players. Unfortunately, the game of darts came to a standstill when one of the players started jumping, trying to steal the dart from the other player. The other boy was about two heads taller and because the boy was shorter, it was leaving him breathless and immensely irritated. "Give it back! You cheated!"
"Ace, why would I cheat? I won fair and square and-"
The taller boy was gutted in the stomach. He swore, "You little brat!"
As the taller boy prepared to tackle the younger boy, Gum got in between the two. Ai also helped out and held Ace's arm from decking the taller boy with another punch.
"It's not my fault Mac's a sore loser." Ace shrugged Ai off and crossed his arms.
"Respect me. I bought you the watermelon." Despite the two players fighting earlier, there were smirks on both their faces.
Johnny didn't understand. He had thought they Mac and Ace were enemies, but how they were smirking they were most likely fooling around. They were untamed and if Johnny was ever lively and like that, his mother would have given him a withering look.
Mac had short blond hair, was slim and tall. He seemed like a foreigner because he had fair skin. The short boy called Ace, was the opposite. He was the shortest and smallest boy that Johnny had seen that day. Ace had a dark complexion, short scruffy jet-black hair and a wide toothy mischievous grin. No matter how Johnny tried to not see it, Mac and Ace were the definition of delinquents - boys that he would never associate with, or so he thought.
"I wanted some watermelon!" Gum complained. "Why didn't you give me some?"
"You weren't here," Mac simply replied.
"Do you know where Ran's leftovers are...or did you eat that too?"
"You weren't here," Ace repeated, smirking. "Of course we ate it. Ran's cooking is the best."
"Oh," Gum said. He snuck a glance at Johnny and sent him an apologetic look. "We'll just go next door then. Ran can make us some food. Come on, Johnny..."
"Wait," Mac ordered. "Who's that?"
"Me?" Johnny pointed both thumbs towards his chest. "Are you talking about me?"
Unlike with everybody that Johnny had met that day, Gum hadn't made the effort or seemed to want to introduce Johnny to Mac or Ace.
"Why are you here?" Like Toppo, Mac was taking in Johnny's appearance with caution. Mac's eyes were looking at his leather shoes then at his gold watch. Johnny was getting sick of everybody judging him. He already had enough of it at school, and getting icy stares from the kids at the orphanage irked him even more.
Mac began to chatter. "Gum, Gum, Gum! We can't take anybody in. Look at him? He probably has someone who cares about him. I don't want to babysit any more people. You guys are a truckload already-"
"I didn't ask to be babysat," Johnny spat.
"And he's got a spoiled rich kid's attitude too!" Mac exclaimed, glaring at Johnny for his snide comment.
"I don't plan on living here."
"Good," Ace added.
Gum stepped in and explained the situation to them, about how Johnny was only hungry and there was no other story behind it. Johnny had wondered all that time why Gum hadn't questioned him more about who he was, but he hadn't. Gum had wanted to help and there were no other strings attached.
Johnny wanted to disappear. He didn't want to be there to witness Gum stick up for him and bicker with the other orphans. He had had enough.
It was then that Johnny felt something tug at his pant.
"They're all nice, you know?" she said. "They act mean at first...it's just because they're scared. Gum told me their secret. He told me that they're scared to trust. At first Mac was mean to me too."
"Huh?" Johnny blinked. How could somebody be mean to someone like Ai?
"But when you get to know them, they're really good boys."
Johnny stared at her, unsure how to respond. There was no way he'd get to know them. By the end of the day, or any time soon, he'd be going home and his taste of freedom would never exist again. He would never know if they were good boys or not, and it wouldn't be any of his concern.
"Don't worry, Mac. I'll go with Johnny to Ran's and be back in an hour."
Mac sighed. "Fine, but you can't go outside."
"I tried to go out with Ace to the park a few minutes ago. Our road has been blocked. It's a real nuisance. I think that's why Takeshi and Obachan haven't come back yet. It'll probably take a few hours till it's cleared."
Gum queried, "How come?"
"They're investigating a car that lit up. When we were trying to get out, we overheard the police talking. Something about that politician family. What's the name...Ace, do you remember?"
"Yeah. They're saying how they were probably members from the Ohkura family..."
"Gum, your friend doesn't look good. It's like he's stopped breathing-"
"Hey! Are you alright there?"
"He's not responding!"
Johnny suddenly felt dizzy. His mother had said that she would track him down. His mother was possibly in that car - the car that had lit up. It all connected. Did that mean that...his mother was dead? He felt sick. His knees dropped, body collapsing onto the ground.
"I-I have no where to go anymore," Johnny said. He didn't know if he had spoken out loud or softly.
A distant, gentle voice spoke, "You can stay here.'
The next thing he felt was a small hand clasping into his and then letting go. In the palm of his hand, he glimpsed a pink carnation.
( a / n )
As you probably have figured out, each chapter will be focused on one character. The next chapter is going to be Mac-centered and will be in the present. I can't guarantee that I'll update quickly. It's actually a miracle that I got this chapter out so soon. I still need to give it a good editing as well.
Thanks for taking your time to read this :)
I'm not really sure how fanfiction works on LJ (since I used to post my works mainly on FP/FF). I'm not really keen on posting each chapter that I post on the kanjani8 community either, so should I notify you individually if I update? If not, you can always track the "--fanfiction: infinite" tag to get notified when this story gets updated. If you have any suggestions, please let me know :)
NOTE: The plot/characters/setting was created before I had watched the 8Uppers film. This story is based from the trailer of 8U & the Prologue of Patch.